September 14, 2013

Never Stop Dreaming

“Please, please, please!” he pleaded.  “Won’t you please let me try out for the baseball team?”   We stood there in the kitchen, his big brown eyes locking with my own skeptical ones, trying their hardest to communicate with me how important this dream was to him.  I was at a loss for an immediate reply. This was a bold request from a foster child.  It would mean a significant time commitment and expense for our family.  What about his schoolwork and grades?  How would I juggle the other 5 children in our home who needed my attention?  Would my consent be the wisest course of action?

I hadn’t known this kid very long - a few months maybe?  He and his younger brother had been raised by a single mom in a dingy apartment on the other side of town, in a neighborhood where the streets are lined with broken-down cars instead of trees.  Packed-down dirt instead of grassy lawns.  Where a neon-signed liquor store might bravely stand on one corner, while a nondescript pawn shop, 24-hour laundromat or seedy check-cashing business occupies another. 

The windows on the houses there tell stories of their occupants:  steel bars on some, offering slim protection against the prevalent crime; others that have remained broken, no one bothering to repair them; some that remain open year-round, allowing the strange smells of ethnic foods to waft outside; and some windows that carry the sounds of the families inside: babies crying, women screaming, men cursing, angry music blaring.  It’s a transient sort of community, where no one trusts neighbors or even makes an effort to know their names.

His mother had eked out a living there, doing her best to raise her two sons without a husband, family members, or friends to support and encourage her.  She may have even had a chance at succeeding, except that her drug habit made it impossible to hold down a job.  There were many times when he and his little brother arrived home from school and found the front door locked.  They knew exactly what that meant:  wait outside until mom and the man inside were done with their “party.”  The circumstances surrounding him made every attempt to extinguish his dreams for the future.  His hopes for a successful life.

I really liked this kid who had come to live with us as our foster child a few months earlier.  He was twelve-going-on-thirteen, a boy about to become a man.  He was perpetually optimistic.  In the midst of dark cloudy days, stormy and dreary, somehow he was always able to find the one ray of sunshine that managed to sneak through.  I looked forward to the late afternoons when he would arrive home from school, regaling me with funny anecdotes about his teacher and schoolmates and fellow bus riders.  His sunny outlook permeated our home.

My heart went out to him, and I wanted to offer him opportunities that he might not otherwise have had.  But when he asked to try out for the baseball team, I wasn’t sure how we could possibly afford it.  My husband and I were a simple twenty-something couple, buried under college loans and car payments, struggling to keep up with the mortgage payments on our first house.  At the same time, we were adjusting to living within a single-income budget now that I had quit working in order to raise these children in our home.  How could we possibly fund every child’s requests for extra-curricular activities?

We finally decided to negotiate with him:  if he could raise enough money for the application and team fee, we would cover the cost of his uniform, baseball glove, and cleats, as well as provide the transportation to all of his practices and games.  It was the best we could offer him under the circumstances.

Secretly, I thought that our little deal would be the last we would hear of his request.  After all, how could a kid who owned nothing ever hope to raise over a hundred dollars?  It might as well have been a million!  It seemed an insurmountable challenge. 

It is a misconception that ugly circumstances beget ugly children:  broken, troubled, and unruly.  Those foster parents must be so amazing, heroic really, to help these poor children find their way.  Not always.  Sometimes it is as if the fiery crucible of non-functioning families produce children who are diamonds, strong and invincible and beautiful.  All they need is the right setting and a little bit of polishing, and oh, how they shine!

Where some kids may have been beaten down and discouraged by their less than ideal upbringing, this young man’s childhood had caused him to be resourceful and independent, confident and ambitious.  In the school library one day, while looking through a magazine, he found an advertisement for a fundraising company.  “Send in this postcard with your name and contact information,” it instructed, “and we will send you a catalog.”  It promised easy income in a short amount of time.  “Your friends can order items from the catalog, and for everything you sell, you get to keep a percentage.  Send in your postcard today!”  And so, expectantly, he did just that.

From the day the catalog arrived, he bravely approached every adult he knew, asking them to take a look at his catalog and to consider supporting his future as a baseball player.  Teachers, friends, people at church, his social worker, my husband’s co-workers.  His bicycle became his constant companion, carrying him all around the neighborhood as he drummed up business and searched for customers.  He meticulously filled out order forms, collected money, and wrote receipts.  I was unexpectedly surprised and extremely proud of his maturity, responsibility, and unwavering focus on accomplishing his fundraising goals.

The day his check arrived in the mail was a joyful occasion indeed!  It was if he had won the lottery!  Single-handedly, he had earned enough money to try out for the team!  And with the little bit of extra funds he had raised, he treated our family to ice cream to celebrate his achievement.  I couldn’t believe this kid:  not only was he upbeat, enthusiastic, hard-working, and steadfast, he was now proving to be grateful and generous as well.  Where did a kid with his background acquire all of these wonderful characteristics?  A lovely diamond, indeed!

And so began his season as a baseball player.  I don’t remember how his team played, how many games they won or lost.  I vividly remember, however, that he poured himself into practices and games, body, heart and soul.  This wasn’t just a small community team to him.  Oh no, this was only the first step on his way to the Major League!  He even autographed a baseball for us, promising us free tickets some day when he played shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It’s been almost 20 years since I saw him last, heading out the door towards the next chapter on his life’s journey.  He is an adult now, a young man with a life of his own.  I don’t know what happened to him after he left my home. I don’t know if he ever became a big-league baseball player.  However, I still have the baseball he signed.  I think of him often, and continue to be inspired by his confidence and enthusiasm.  I am grateful for the impact he unintentionally made on my life.  His resilience was living proof that, despite a parent’s mistakes and deficiencies, a child’s spirit can triumph.

Wherever he is today, I hope he has never given up on his goals for the future.  I hope he still has passion.  I hope he has never stopped dreaming.

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